Thanks a bunch! Why every brand should have a thank you strategy

Leith planner Thea on fan letters, Bowie, and the power of a great thank you.

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My kids wrote three fan letters over the summer.

One to the famously curmudgeonly owner of an Irish budget airline — asking for advice on becoming a pilot.
One to a recently retired Olympic gymnast— asking for advice on a first competition.
One to our local zoo — asking for advice on becoming a zoo keeper.

All three letters involved best handwriting, and various drawings of planes, penguins and leotards. And all were dispatched with nothing more than a child’s bright hope for something through the letterbox addressed to them.

Here’s what happened next.

One didn’t reply at all.
One replied with an autographed, but otherwise ‘standard’ pre-printed message that bore no relation to the letter my kids had sent.
One replied with a highly personal thank you letter, answering all the questions in a detailed, non-patronising way; including an (unasked for) small gift, and a second small gift for a school friend casually mentioned in the letter.

Can you hazard a guess as to who responded in which way?

From our local zoo — nothing.
From the sporting hero — the ‘standard issue’ note.
From the demon airline owner — the amazing letter, which is now framed on my aspiring-pilot’s bedroom wall, inspires him to do his maths homework every week, and has been raved about to countless friends and family.

Three very different responses. Which provoked three very different emotional responses from my kids. All of which started me pondering three things:

1. The enormous power of a meaningful thank you.

2. The fact so many brands overlook saying thank you altogether.

3. The fact a screwed-up thank you is actually more damaging than no thank you at all.

Because here’s the thing. My kids weren’t too bothered that the zoo didn’t reply. They quickly concluded that zookeepers are busy people and can’t be expected to reply to every letter. (Even ones with penguin drawings).

The one that rankled was the Olympic hero. Because it was a cheat. A standard printed thank you, masquerading as a personal response. (A swindle obvious even to a nine year old).

Brands today know exactly how to say sorry. In an era of slick media training (and near-constant threat of some breach/hack/emissions scandal) — barely a week goes by without some brand taking out a full-page, self-flagellatory apology in the papers.

But in mastering the art of apology, I wonder if many brands might have lost the art of gratitude.

The ‘zoo-model of no thanks at all’

The zoo didn’t reply to my kids’ letter. And masses of brands fall into the same trap. They forget to say thanks at all.

I’ve bought contact lenses from the same company for twenty years. Every now and then they send me a stern letter threatening to cut off my supply if I don’t get an eye test quick-smart. But I’ve never had a thank you for my near lifelong custom.

It doesn’t bother me. But it ought to bother the brand.

Studies by the Behavioural Insight Team have shown that thanking people can have a major impact on how they go on to behave.

In a fascinating study with teachers (who often feel over-worked and undervalued) — the Behavioural Insights Team tested different ways of expressing thanks via email. They tried various tactics like prompting teachers to reflect on their experiences, or including messages from students. They also included a standalone thank you email without any accompanying messages. In the words of Michael Sanders:

“What we found, perhaps surprisingly, was that the most effective message was simply saying “thanks”.”

The Olympic athlete trap of screwed-up thank yous.

Some brands have cottoned-on to the power of saying thank you. But like the Olympic gymnast’s reply to my kids (with it’s ‘fake’ personal note that even a 9 year old could see-through) — brands have an uncanny knack of making their thank yous a bit weird and wrong.

Loads of people wax lyrical about P&G’s “Thank You Moms” campaign.

But it’s always left me queasy.

Less so their campaign celebrating the mums behind Olympic athletes. But when they turn it on me, I get a bad smell that no amount of Febreeze can cover-up.

Because who are P&G to thank me for what I do as a mum? They have no idea what I’m like as a mum. I could be a rubbish mum for all they know. They’re thanking me for something they don’t have the right to.

How can brands avoid screwing up and unlock the power of a great thank you?

The thank you letter my kids received from the supposedly ‘nasty’ airline was amazing. (Framed on the wall, study hard at school amazing). Simply because it was written by a human being who decided to spend a few minutes taking a child’s passion, hopes and dreams seriously.

And that’s the nub.

A good thank you is a meaningful thank you.

A meaningful thank you makes you think, “they didn’t have to do that”.

You have to say sorry. But you never have to say thank you. That’s why, when you do — it can be a curiously powerful thing.

This can be as simple as a handwritten note from someone you wouldn’t think would have the time. Or, you can take the feeling of “they didn’t have to do that” to a whole new level, as TD Bank did in Canada with their ATMs (Automated Thank You Machines).

A meaningful thank you has no strings attached.

All too often, the only time brands thank us is one sentence before trying to sell us something, or give us bad news. But the second you add strings, it stops being a thank you and reverts to being plain old sales patter.

When the Star Wars ‘Force Awakens’ production team finished shooting in Ireland, they took out an advert in the papers thanking the people of Ireland for having them.

What they didn’t do was stick a load of stuff on the end about being sure to book tickets or urging people to tweet how #StarWarsMadeMyDay.

It was the complete absence of strings attached that made it a lovely thing.

A meaningful thank you feels personal.

This doesn’t have to mean uniquely personal. Just not glaringly impersonal, (as the Olympic athlete’s ‘standard’ response to my kids letter so obviously was).

CRUK struck a great balance with their Race for Life Twitter activity.

They picked-up on people tweeting about fundraising for the race, and surprised them with a personalised thank you film. Clearly this is an automated process. But the overall execution was so pleasantly surprising, and feel-good, that it succeeded in making people feel personally valued for their efforts, and part of a huge movement of passionate CRUK crusaders.

A meaningful thank you is self-deprecating.

A meaningful thank you has to be more about the person being thanked, than the person doing the thanking.

Coke are rubbish at this. When Coke thank someone, they want the whole world to know they’ve thanked someone. They want to be known as the best Goddam thankers in the whole Goddam universe. Cue: unlikely ‘social experiments’ set to swelling orchestral scores that would make even John Williams blush. (See ‘Coke — The Happiest Thank You’ on YouTube for an example — though it might make you puke your fizzy pop).

Kraft Mac and Cheese (in contrast) know that they’re a salty, gooey lump of carbs. When lots of people followed them on Facebook they decided to say thank you. Their “cheesy”, tongue-in-cheek response recognised the inherent ridiculousness of anyone choosing to follow a cheesy snack on Facebook — and was all the better for this self-deprecating grounding in reality.

Finally, a meaningful thank you is mindful of the power-play between thanker and thankee.

Thank you has an interesting double meaning.

From the Anglo Saxon, “thank you” stems from “think”, (as in, “I will think of you for this”). The power is with the person giving the thanks.
But from French (merci) and Portuguese (obrigado) we get a meaning of debt. I am now obliged to you. Be merciful. The power is with the person receiving the thanks.

As with so much great advertising, interesting things happen when you clash these meanings in uncomfortable, unexpected ways.

My favourite example of this is the post London 2012 campaign by Channel 4 to usher in the Paralympics.

Penned by Leith’s own ace-copywriter, Claire Watson — “Thanks For The Warm-Up” was a perfect piece of linguistic power play.

Not gratitude for being allowed to tag along.
But thanks wielded as power. Thanks as a means of establishing super-human superiority over regular, work-a-day Olympians.

Reflecting on the thinking that led her to this line, Claire said:

“It never made any sense to me that the Paralympics were somehow less significant than the Olympics. Or that its athletes somehow deserved less attention and less respect. A desire to change this and most importantly people’s perceptions of disability was the fuel behind ‘Thanks for the warm up’.
The Paralympics needed to assert itself and turn the problems they faced on the head. The cocky and cheeky nature of ‘Thanks for the warm up’ helped even the playing field .
There ended up being a genuine hype around the Paralympics, along with viewing figures that the games had never seen before. But the best, most rewarding bit, is there has been a marked change in people’s attitudes towards disability, with the Paralympians finally up there with the Olympians, as they bloody well should be.”

Your thank you strategy for 2017? “Be Like Bowie”.

I think every brand should have a thank you strategy for 2017.

But writing this piece, I can’t help feeling that when it comes to thank yous, perhaps it’s bands, and not brands who have the most to teach us.

It may be a cliche, but bands never forget that at the end of the day “it’s all about the fans”. (How many brands can really claim the same?).

So I’ll end with a bit of inspiration from David Bowie and the letter he wrote in 1967, in reply to his first piece of fan mail from the US.

We could do worse than making 2017 the year we all resolve to help our brands “be like Bowie”, and remember the power of a truly meaningful thank you.

Dear Sandra,

When I called in this, my manager’s office, a few moments ago I was handed my very first American fan letter — and it was from you. I was so pleased that I had to sit down and type an immediate reply, even though Ken is shouting at me to get on with a script he badly needs. That can wiat (wi-at? That’s a new English word which means wait).

I’ve been waiting for some reaction to the album from American listeners. There were reviews in Billboard and Cash Box, but they were by professional critics and they rarely reflect the opinions of the public. The critics were very flattering however. They even liked the single “Love You Till Tuesday”. I’ve got a copy of the American album and they’ve printed the picture a little yellow. I’m really not that blond. I think the picture on the back is more ‘me’. Hope you like those enclosed.

In answer to your questions, my real name is David Jones and I don’t have to tell you why I changed it. “Nobody’s going to make a monkey out of you” said my manager. My birthday is January 8th and I guess I’m 5’10”. There is a Fan Club here in England, but if things go well in the States then we’ll have one there I suppose. It’s a little early to even think about it.

I hope one day to get to America. My manager tells me lots about it as he has been there many times with other acts he manages. I was watching an old film on TV the other night called “No Down Payment” a great film, but rather depressing if it is a true reflection of The American Way Of Life. However, shortly after that they showed a documentary about Robert Frost the American poet, filmed mainly at his home in Vermont, and that evened the score. I am sure that that is nearer the real America. I made my first movie last week. Just a fifteen minutes short, but it gave me some good experience for a full length deal I have starting in January.

Thankyou for being so kind as to write to me and do please write again and let me know some more about yourself.

Yours sincerely,

(Signed, ‘David Bowie’)

(PS. This was a very long post, so if you made it all the way to here, thanks very much. Thea x)